The expected flood of nostalgia that’s ramped up over the past couple of weeks following Liverpool’s march into the Champions League semi-finals is a product almost as much of their opponents at this stage as of the club’s rich history in the competition.
As soon as it was revealed that Jürgen Klopp’s men would face Roma, memories were instantly cast back to the famous encounter between the two sides in 1984’s European Cup final – a match that immediately conjures recollections of Liverpool’s glorious eighties. Bruce Grobbelaar’s theatrics, Alan Kennedy’s shootout heroics, and the vivid colour and cluster of a baying Rome crowd that night have cemented the game’s status in the pantheon of European classics.
Yet the pair’s last meeting in this competition, back in 2002, is another that merits recounting as the sides prepare to duke it out for a place in the final. Featuring a Roma team at their zenith and a young, hungry Liverpool side carving out a name for themselves as one of Europe’s rising forces, the clash saw Anfield enveloped in the type of raw, cacophonous emotion it must replicate if the Reds are to reach their first European Cup final in over a decade.
The stakes couldn’t have been much higher as Liverpool welcomed Roma to the cauldron of Anfield on that chilly night in March. UEFA still employed the second group phase format in the Champions League, one which would be replaced by the Round of 16 two seasons later, and nothing less than a win would do for the Reds; their qualification hinged on victory over Roma by two goals, and failure by Galatasaray to beat Barcelona. Roma, on the other hand, would book their ticket to the next round simply by avoiding defeat.
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The Liverpool side of 2002 was an undoubtedly more prosaic outfit than Klopp’s current team, with little to rival the panache of the Mané-Firmino-Salah axis that’s cut such a swathe through England and Europe this season. They were, nonetheless, a robust and effective unit, with a sturdy defensive bedrock built around the central partnership of Sami Hyypiä and Stéphane Henchoz, the still-green Steven Gerrard added splashes of colour with his explosive midfield play, and Ballon d’Or winner Michael Owen was the free-scoring jewel in Liverpool’s attack.
A characteristic injury to the Chester man, however, ruled him out of the Roma clash, meaning that Emile Heskey and the refined Jari Litmanen were partnered up front, charged with the task of breaching the Italians’ unflappable rearguard.
Roma may be surprise guests in the semi-finals of this season’s competition, but in 2002 they were viewed as real heavyweights – one of the leading contenders to lift the famous trophy. The Italian giants had serious designs on a European title to burnish their domestic success, with wily tactician Fabio Capello having led them to a first Scudetto since 1983.
A 25-year old Francesco Totti was already well-established as the club’s totem, and a formidable defensive phalanx was superbly marshalled by centre-back Walter Samuel. The marauding Cafú was an ominous absentee for the Liverpool game, and Gabriel Batistuta had failed to hit the goalscoring heights of his debut season in Rome, but the Giallorossi still appeared in rude good health as they set their sights on a first-ever European Cup triumph.
The fervent anticipation and energy that gripped Anfield as the game drew nearer were palpable, but there was still time for one further development that would ramp the electricity to a whole different level. Gérard Houllier, the stricken Liverpool manager who had led the club to five trophies in the preceding 13 months, had not been seen on the touchline since being rushed to hospital during a game against Leeds United, five months earlier, with a suspected dissected aorta.
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Rumours swirling around the ground prior to kick-off had suggested that Houllier might take his place in the dugout against Roma, and sure enough, the Frenchman emerged from the tunnel – slightly greyer and gaunter than before – to a bear hug from Capello and a thunderous reception from the Kop. It was, they hoped, the added impetus required to engineer a famous victory.
It was against this raucous backdrop that Liverpool surged out of the traps in a chaotic opening to the game, fizzing around the Italian champions and cueing pandemonium when Danny Murphy was felled by Damiano Tommasi to win a penalty after just six minutes. The oft-overlooked Litmanen displayed icy calm amidst the bedlam to nervelessly dispatch the spot-kick.
The Reds defence withstood Roma’s expected sting in the tail, holding Totti, Batistuta and Vincenzo Montella at bay, and Heskey sent the crowd into raptures with a bulleting header midway through the second half that left Francesco Antonioli with no chance. The 2-0 victory sent Liverpool through, and as they strode imperiously onwards to the quarter-finals, a sense of greatness was upon Houllier’s young team. “We can go to the final,” declared the Frenchman’s lieutenant, Phil Thompson. “There is that much confidence in this team and this squad. There is a belief that we can win the European Cup.”
The stirring triumph against one of the titans of the European game had seemed to suggest infinite possibility for Houllier’s Liverpool, and further evidence of the team’s relentless rise to the summit of the English and European games under the Frenchman. Yet few inside the stadium that night could have predicted that the win would mark Houllier’s last truly memorable European victory at the helm, with a spirited Bayer Leverkusen side sending the Reds crashing out of that year’s competition before a slow, inexorable decline afflicted the team in subsequent seasons.
Houllier would depart L4 little more than two years later, with that colossal victory over Roma serving as little more than a fond memory of his doomed tenure. As Klopp leads his thrilling Liverpool side into the white-hot furnace of Anfield, he’ll hope that another famous European victory over the Italian giants can act as a checkpoint on his team’s ascent to greatness, rather than the pinnacle it represented for Houllier’s team.
By Fergal McAlinden @fergalmcalinden